As a child, New Britain High School teacher Violet Sims, who is Afro-Caribbean, never imagined she could one day become a teacher because, as she put it, “I never had a teacher who looked like me.”
As a student, “I couldn’t relate to anyone,” Sims told the more than 65 guests who recently attended the Neag School of Education’s fourth annual Diversity Outreach Dinner. “I never would have imagined ending up a teacher, because it didn’t occur to me that it was an option.”
The dinner is one of the many ways the Neag School of Education is working to change this belief. The event is designed to show minority students not just the need for their expertise and passion in teaching, but also the accompanying opportunities and rewards that can come from entering the field of education. Although minority students make up more than one-third of Connecticut’s public school students, just seven percent of state teachers and two percent of administrators are minorities as well.
Taking on the challenge to change numbers like these is difficult work, Simms said, but “the rewards far outweigh the disappointments.”
Coordinated by Noemi Maldonado Picardi, the Diversity Outreach Dinner brought together students and professionals from all areas of the field.
Each table was strategically arranged so that it contained at least one student applying to Neag, one newly accepted student, one senior undergraduate student, one graduate student, one Neag faculty member, and someone currently working in the field. High school students from the Hartford Teacher Preparation Academy also attended. The mix of people at each table gave students the optimal opportunity to meet, and network, with a variety of potential mentors and contacts. Participants were also encouraged to move around and meet those at other tables.
“The event is important in that it shows students that teaching is a viable career and that support is available for those who are interested,” explained Maldonado.
This was the second year Justis Lopez attended. Last year, he was there as a prospective student. This year, he there as a new admit to Neag’s secondary history program.
Lopez said attending in 2011 allowed him to meet and make lasting connections with several education professionals, including Meriden’s Hanover Elementary School Superintendent Dr. Michael Cardona, who invited Lopez to shadow him at his school. Shortly after, Dr. Cardona was recognized throughout the U.S. as the 2012 National Distinguished Principal from Connecticut.
“This dinner is a phenomenal resource for students applying,” says Lopez, “I hope to give new students the same kind of help and advice that I received last year.”
Leslyann Jimenez, a New London High School Spanish teacher, spoke at the event along with Sims, sharing how moving from Puerto Rico to America—and the “overwhelming” fear she experienced learning to speak and write correct English—has helped her relate to students experiencing those same fears.
She concluded her speech by saying, “we can make a difference one day at a time, one life at a time.”
After the speeches, attendees were asked to share with their table the name of a teacher who made a difference in their lives. “The exercise reaffirmed the importance of the field of education and demonstrated how great an impact teachers can have on students’ lives,” Maldonado said.
Recipients of Neag’s $1,000 Hearst Scholarship were also announced. Presented annually to one student from each grade level for promoting diversity, the awards were given to Justis Lopez, Jonathan Brown and Annie Ramos.
Concluding the evening was a performance by Shantel Honeyghan, a Hartford Teacher Preparation Academy alumni and UConn sophomore applying to Neag for secondary English. She presented an inspirational poem entitled, “I want to be.”
“The night was a tremendous success,” Maldonado said. “The dinner stressed the importance of expanding diversity in the field of education and provided students with the opportunity to speak to current teachers who could give them an inside perspective.”